GREEN BAY, Wis. — Jon Runyan Jr. has been around football since he could lift one of his dad’s first NFL helmets, the one with the Tennessee Titans logo on it, or drape himself with a No. 69 Philadelphia Eagles jersey or sit on his dad’s locker room stool at the old Veterans Stadium.
He always wanted a helmet, jersey and a locker of his own.
His mom and dad, well, that’s a different story.
Jon Sr., a veteran of 14 NFL seasons — one of them a Pro Bowl year and two of them ending at the Super Bowl — never pushed his only son toward the game. Loretta, stressed enough as a football wife, didn’t need to relive it watching her firstborn.
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To them, however, that’s part of what makes their son’s journey to the NFL and to the Green Bay Packers special. Sure, the Runyan name might have opened doors, but Jon Jr. — or Jon Daniel, as Loretta calls him — walked through on his own.
“Him wanting to play football in the first or second grade, I was like, no, no,” Loretta said. “My heart hurt every time I had to go out there and watch him practice, and I would cry. I still get that feeling. Jon Daniel’s my only boy, and he’s my oldest child.”
In so many ways, the 22-year-old selected by the Packers in the sixth round of last month’s NFL draft is both his father’s son — an offensive lineman like his dad, a Michigan man like his dad, a hulking 6-foot-4, 307 pounds like his 6-foot-7, 330-pound dad, dyslexic like his dad — and his own man.
“One thing my high school coach told me was, ‘You’ve just got to be you. Your dad is a completely different person than you, so you don’t have to live up to any of his expectations. Just start your own path and your own goals, and all that stuff that comes with it is just secondary,'” Jon Jr. recalled. “It was a struggle for me in high school, but I chose this road moving onto college, and I’m comfortable with everything I’m doing. He’s cast a big shadow over me, but I’m not trying to live in that shadow my whole life. I’m trying to step out and make an even bigger one.”
Jon Jr. first put on a helmet and pads in grade school.
That lasted only one year.
“He was just too big,” Jon Sr. said. “I always say [in] football you end up in a position by your body type. But when they’re 8, 9 years old, they’re all the same size. Except my kid; he was bigger than everybody else. That first year, the coach said he’s got to cut weight. I’m like, ‘He’s not going to cut weight — have you seen me?'”
Jon Jr. turned to flag football, and he played everything from quarterback to receiver to defensive back, until eighth grade, when weight limits were lifted and he could put the pads back on.
Loretta, a self-proclaimed “momma bear,” still wasn’t sure football was for him.
“Initially, I kind of pulled him out because he just couldn’t grasp the whole language of the plays,” Loretta said. “He thought he could just get the football, and he could run or he could throw. He has auditory processing disorder, which always worried me because football is like a different language. And he also has Jon’s dyslexia. He had to overcome a lot.
“He begged me to play tackle in the eighth grade. He had been working so hard. I thought he probably needs to start playing tackle. So he played it in the eighth grade. He played three sports in middle school, and he played basketball in the ninth grade. I really wanted him to play basketball because I didn’t like football for him, but he begged me.”
Auditory processing disorder makes it difficult to understand speech. Loretta said preschool teachers first noticed an issue with Jon Jr., but he wasn’t diagnosed until third grade. With APD, dyslexia and being colorblind, Jon Jr. needed extra hours of tutoring, which during the high school season often made for 16-hour days with school, practice and evening sessions with tutors. At Michigan, he earned his undergraduate degree in sociology. Last semester, he began graduate-school classes in real estate development.
“I was that mom who would go to the football coach in eighth grade and explain to him that Jon Daniel’s not dumb,” Loretta said. “If you’re talking to him, you have to make sure he understands and you have to show him. He learns by vision. He has a photographic memory because he’s had to learn other skills to compensate. Teachers would always caution me that something might be too much for him, but he never complained.
“I’ve said to him, ‘If there’s any [charitable] foundation that you ever want to do, I think that’s what you should do because you can inspire people.’ Just the work he’s done — not just football, but academics — and to go through all that.”
It warmed Loretta’s heart to hear Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst describe Jon Jr. as a “smart” player. And it had to make Jon Sr., once known as one of the NFL’s fiercest competitors, happy to hear Gutekunst describe his son as “tough.”
At Michigan, Jon Jr. started 26 games (25 at left tackle and one at right tackle) and was a two-time recipient of the Hugh H. Rader Memorial Award given to the team’s top offensive lineman — an honor bestowed upon his dad in 1994, making them the only father-son duo to win it. The Packers plan to move Jon Jr. to guard, where they believe his athletic ability is well suited to their zone-blocking scheme.
For now, Jon Jr. is living with his parents and participating in the Packers’ virtual offseason program because of the coronavirus pandemic. But he’s still getting lessons from his dad.
“I’ve just tried to help with the expectations,” Jon Sr. said. “I’ve told him a couple of times, ‘If you’re lucky enough to have an opportunity to contribute your first year, great. Then your second year, you better be battling somebody, really battling somebody for it, because if you’re not making a contribution by the end of your third year, you’re not going to be around.’ That’s what I literally told him after he got picked. It was congratulations, and I know everything you put into it to get this far, but these next two years are going to be as hard as the last 10.”
These days, Jon Sr. works for the NFL as vice president of policy and rules administration, which followed a four-year stint representing New Jersey in the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s where Jon Jr. says his career path most definitely will differ from his father’s — no politics.
For Loretta, it has come full circle. She met Jon Sr. during his rookie season in Houston, where she worked as a police officer. She followed him to Tennessee when the Oilers became the Titans, and they settled in the Philadelphia area with Jon Jr. and his two younger sisters, one of whom is headed to Villanova on a basketball scholarship next school year.
Now, Loretta is about to join a different club.
“Guess what?” Loretta said with an excitement in her voice. “When I was an NFL wife, one of my best friends was Donovan McNabb’s wife, and Donovan’s mom was president or something of the NFL mom’s club. She’s invited me to the NFL mom’s club. She and I are good friends. Roxie McNabb and I have always stayed tight over the years and watched each other’s kids, and now I’m like, ‘Can you believe I’m going to be an NFL mom?'”